Therapy dogs have been assisting people for more than 50 years, but it has been only the past 10 years that their support has expanded from visiting nursing homes and hospitals. The AIR Dogs: Paws for Minds program has helped expand the support of therapy dogs to mental wellness and suicide prevention programs in schools, and supporting students during a crisis and the loss of a friend. I have seen the dogs repeatedly work their “magic” in helping people to heal.
We are always amazed with our AIR Dog human volunteers. When AIR receives the request after a crisis, the AIR volunteers will drive across New Jersey to support students. Each volunteer handler goes through Youth Mental Health First Aid Training, which is critical. What we have found is that often students will share their “secrets” with a dog and often forget that there is a human on the other end of the leash.
Late at night in April 2019, we received the type of text messages that we dread seeing. The death of a student. A young, beautiful girl. A freshman at Hopewell Valley Regional High School. This was only one of many heartbreaking deaths that occurred in winter and spring of the 2018-19 school year, where our AIR Therapy Dogs were called in multiple times to help support grieving students. AIR Dogs therapy teams stepped up. Day after day, the dogs shared their comfort and therapeutic healing with students in Hopewell.
As the healing took place, Dr. Thomas Smith, the Superintendent of Hopewell Valley Regional School District (HVRSD), watched. He saw that the students being with the dogs was not only calming, but it opened up conversations of grief and healing that may not have happened otherwise. Dr. Smith saw the magic and he knew he wanted to bring that magic to the students every day.
Soon after, the partnership between AIR Dogs: Paws for Minds and HVRSD began. Dr. Smith’s goal: at least one certified therapy dog on each school property every day.
Six human/dog teams met on a weekly basis. The teams soon found out that having a well-behaved dog, with confidence to go into schools, was not easy to accomplish. The teams, including Dr. Smith with his yellow lab, JoJo, were dedicated, meeting 7:30 am every Monday morning for the school year. The first week was chaotic, as often basic dog training classes are. The dogs were nervous. They did not know the other dogs or humans. The dogs were in a strange environment, with new sights, smells and sounds – a very stressful environment. The humans were awkward in their leash handling and dog communication skills.
The AIR Dog’s School Therapy Dog program is a full comprehensive program that not only teaches and certifies each individual handler/dog but teaches all the handlers/dogs to work together as a cohesive school team. Behavioral assessments of the dogs are done during class. Observations are made about which dogs may not want to work as a therapy dog. Observations are also made about which dogs don’t like each other. The school therapy dog team is assigned a set of rules to follow, to ensure the safety of all students, staff and dogs.
All HVRSD humans and dogs were dedicated. As Certified Professional Dog Trainers- Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) we felt a strong feeling of pride as we watched the teams learn and blossom.
This past June, six of our HVRSD handlers & dogs tested, passed and are now a certified AIR/HVRSD School Therapy Dog Team.
On the team are:
- JoJo and Thomas Smith, Superintendent
- Bruno Mars and Rosetta Treece, Director of Curriculum and Instruction
- Baxter and Scott Brettell, Vice Principal of HV Central High School
- Rosie and Steve Wilfing, Principal of Stony Brook Elementary School
- Lucy and Nicole Gianfredi, Principal of Timberlane Middle School
- Hopkins and Vicky Pilitsis, Director of STEM
For the dog days of summer, we will spotlight each one of these hero teams who will be supporting students in the 20-2021 school year. With the struggles of getting back to consistency and normalcy, the AIR/HVRSD school therapy dogs will be needed now more than ever.